Gifted yet focused

With an impressive resumé of recording and performances behind him, 14-year-old Ariel Lanyi is his own harshest judge as he prepares for his upcoming concert.

Ariel Lanyi 370 (photo credit: Paul Malone)
Ariel Lanyi 370
(photo credit: Paul Malone)
Like most exceptionally talented youngsters, 14-year-old Ariel Lanyi is a mixture of the characteristics one would expect from his age group, and some astonishing signs of maturity. The Jerusalemite pianist has a prestigious concert date coming up next week at the Felicja Blumental Center in Tel Aviv, where the program will comprise four works for solo piano, including Schumann’s “Carnival Scenes from Vienna,” “Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H” by Liszt, Brahms’s “Seven Fantasies for Piano,” and “Piano Sonata 1.X. 1905” by Janacek.
Lanyi knows all four pieces well; they also appear on his first classical CD, Romantic Profiles, which came out on the Northern Ireland-based label Lyte Records. Not a bad achievement for a 14-year-old, especially considering that Romantic Profiles follows two jazz releases.
He began studying classical piano just before he turned five, but two years later jazz came into his life.
“I didn’t move away from classical music, I just started with jazz, too,” he says in perfect English, one of four languages he has mastered to date. “Jazz fascinated me at an early age, and I decided to learn how to play it, in addition to learning how to play classical music.”
Often musicians, when asked about the areas of music in which they engage, tend to come out with statements along the lines of “music is music,” adding that they treat each genre equally and don’t think in terms of different mindsets.
Lanyi appears to adopt a similar approach; for him, classical music and jazz were simply two avenues for him to explore and to express himself. Even so, they are two very different fields. One requires a great deal of discipline and going by the book, while the other offers a definitively expansive vehicle for self-expression. When pressed, he admits that, for him, jazz fit the latter bill.
“It gave me freedom and allowed me to do improvisation,” he says, before bringing the conversation back to his current line of artistic endeavor. “I moved back into classical music when I started high school. It wasn’t that I’d had enough of the freedom [of jazz], it was just a matter of what I felt and what I felt I wanted to focus on.”
The young pianist hones his craft at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and at the academy high school, and his tuition includes jazz piano lessons with internationally renowned, Lithuanian-born composer and pianist Slava Ganelin, and classical piano lessons with Yuval Cohen.
FOCUS IS an operative word in Lanyi’s life. When we meet, he is sporting a flexible brace on his right wrist.
“I have been practicing too much,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve had this on for a few days, but it will be all right.”
It will have to be. Much of his daily schedule is taken up with music. In addition to his solo work, he plays with his school’s classical ensemble, as well with a jazz band. He is also a member of a choir and has been studying violin for some years. When he is not playing an instrument, he spends much of his time listening to music.
“I only listen to classical music,” he declares, somewhat unsurprisingly. Isn’t there anything along the lines of pop or rock music that appeals to him? “Pink Floyd,” he proffers with some effort. “Animals is a good album. But there’s really nothing else.”
He maintains that working in both the classical and jazz spheres is not such a rare phenomenon.
“Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett play classical music,” he says, citing pianist-keyboardists who have been among the giants of jazz for around half a century. He adds that there is some degree of cross-fertilization between the two genres. “I think that without classical music, you can’t do jazz, at least not well. I don’t know how much they help each other, but they don’t interfere.”
Around five and a half years ago, when Lanyi looked so small that he’d have trouble finding the piano keys with his eight-year- old hands, I was witness to his incredible performance at the launch of his first jazz CD, 31 Bars, at the now-defunct Artel music venue in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound.
The place was packed as the child pianist not only dazzled us with an impressive display of virtuosity, but also exuded a remarkable amount of confidence as he addressed his audience and explained some of the background to the musical project.
He wrote or co-wrote nine of the 12 tracks on the CD, and in addition to the solo pieces, he collaborated with some of the veterans of the local jazz scene, including then-74-year-old clarinetist Harold Rubin and saxophonist Jess Koren.
But the prime mover behind that first foray into performing jazz was Jerusalemite bass player Jean Claude Jones, about whom Lanyi says in the 31 Bars liner notes, “[he] taught me everything I know about jazz.”
The debut jazz CD also came out on Jones’s Kadima Collective label, and the two performed at a number of jazz festivals abroad before Lanyi decided to revert to classical music.
Jones was immediately taken with his young student.
“I remember his enthusiasm during our jazz lessons, when we often sat to listen and comment on tunes together,” recalls the bass player. “One lesson, he blew me away by transcribing by ear, and real fast, a solo by [iconic jazz pianist] Lennie Tristano I asked him to do.”
Jones says the lessons were a source of great joy for him, although religious considerations sometimes intervened. “He and his dad [Gabi] used to come on Friday afternoons, and as Shabbat was getting very close, he often did not want to stop our lessons, begging Gabi to stay a little longer. He once said he wanted me to be his teacher for all his life.”
The bass player says he expects great things of his former jazz disciple in the classical world, too. “I miss our time together now that he has chosen to strive for perfection in the strict classical path. Jazz is maybe too loose for him, but who knows what exactly is in store for him? I personally believe that he will achieve a great career as a composer and classical performer.”
WITH A record name like Romantic Profiles, one wonders how far someone Lanyi’s age has ventured into the affairs of the heart.
But for him, the romantic side of classical music is solely of artistic interest, and he says it offers him a broad avenue of expression.
“In baroque music, you have a lot of polyphony and texture, and then in the classical, late-18th-century period, you have a period of articulation and refinement, and also the beginning of what we call modern technical virtuosity and composition,” he explains. “In romantic music, you combine both, and obviously you add new flavor to it, and expression. It kind of combines everything that came before.”
His abundance of natural talent notwithstanding, he works hard at his art. A Steinway grand piano occupies pride of place in the Lanyi living room, and there are hundreds of classical CDs on shelves dotted all around the apartment. The youngster has already tried his hand at writing classical works, which doesn’t make life any easier.
“That was quite hard for him,” proffers his dad.
“It wasn’t hard to write or to learn how to play,” the teenage pianist jumps in. “It was hard to learn to play it by heart.”
But characteristically he did manage it, and performed the work in Paris.
Even with such an impressive resumé of recording and performances, one might expect a young artist to be sensitive to criticism, but it seems he is own harshest judge.
“The concert in Paris wasn’t very good,” he says soberly. “The energies weren’t right. It just didn’t go very well.”
Toward the end of the interview, he appears to be somewhat on edge, but it transpires that he is simply eager to get back to his music. Before I take my leave, he already has his head buried in some sheet music.
Ariel Lanyi will play at the Felicja Blumental Center in Tel Aviv on Monday at 8 p.m. For more information: (03) 620-1185, and